These Origami-Inspired Houses Pop Up In Disasters

In post-tsunami Japan, one important lesson was that, after basic needs like eating and drinking were fulfilled, refugees most hungered for privacy and intimacy. These simple foldable shelters could help.

After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, hundreds of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Many ended up in temporary “box houses” from the government that are so depressing they’ve actually been linked to suicide: They’re dark, crammed together, and are far away from the seaside villages where many inhabitants once lived and worked.


This is why architecture students from Tokyo volunteered in an affected community and created an alternative. Their simple pop-up house, inspired by origami, provides privacy and shelter and can be used directly at the site of the disaster.

The house starts out flat and then quickly folds up into a small room with a peaked roof. While flat, the house is actually designed to double as a table that can be used in a home or school. “They’re useful all the time–before or after a disaster,” says the design team, from Architecture Global Aid.

Unlike most emergency shelters that are shipped to a location after a disaster hits, this one would already be on hand and ready for use. The shelters are made from a type of wood that floats and are brightly colored, so they are easy to find in a flood. They can even serve as life rafts for anyone who gets trapped in the current.

The tiny houses can be used outside or arranged inside a larger space like a school to provide private space. “A very important lesson we learned in the months after the tsunami was that, in a disaster, basic human needs after eating and drinking were related to privacy and intimacy,” the architects say.

The team designed another version for earthquake-prone regions of Spain. Since Spain doesn’t face the same risk of flooding, the new shelter is made from more affordable paperboard. It can be assembled in three minutes and stored flat in box whenever it’s not needed.

So far, the architects have made a few prototypes of the wooden version, which are now at schools in Tokyo and northern Japan.


While the shelters could be useful for very short-term use, they’re definitely not substitutes for actual houses. Each origami house is just a simple room without plumbing, electricity, or other basic services. And in massive disasters like the tsunami in Japan, there’s usually an ongoing need for places to live–even now, three years after the disaster, nearly 300,000 people in Japan still haven’t been able to go home.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.